Monday, April 15, 2024

Why do bishops cover up sexual abuse? In the European Conservative

I have an article in the European Conservative about clerical abuse, though my analysis applies equally to abuse in secular institutions. We have moved on sufficiently in this debate that the focus is now often more on the covering up of this abuse, than on the abuse itself. Whatever form the abuse took, the motivation of the abusers is not difficult to discern: they get a kick out of it. More in need of explanation is the protection of the abusers by those in positions of authority.

I argue in this article against the now-standard explanation, that religious superiors, managers etc. are motivated by a desire to protect the reputation of the institution. But people who want to protect reputations get abusers to go away, by threatening exposure or investigation. The cover-up bishops I have in mind typically moved them to new parishes, enabling them to abuse a fresh set of victims.

My explanation is that these bishops accepted the heightened risk of scandal because they liked having the abusers inside the organisation, because they were reliable in other ways: they supported the bishop's power.

I make this argument in the article, and at greater length in a podcast, and in one of my books.

I hope it is sufficiently obvious that the standard explanation is wrong, even if the alternative needs making out more. This raises the question of why it is so popular. 

Saying that bishops moved priests around to protect the institution, desperately hoping they would not re-offend, is a stronger variant on the old idea of a 'few bad apples'. The 'few bad apples' theory is that any organisation is going to have some bad people in it. It is inadequate because, when the abusers are identified as such, superiors too often protected them instead of ejecting them. The most charitable explanation of this is that the superiors hoped a slap on the wrist would straighten them out and that in a new context, surrounded by a new set of potential victims with no reason to be on their guard, everything would be fine. But then you notice that superiors do this over and over again, with multiple abusers, and they still didn't want to eject the abusers. No-one could be that stupid.

The 'few bad apples' explanation tells us that abuse is not systemic. Though standards of admission and surveillance could be tightened up, the institution as a whole is not directly to blame. The 'protection of the institution' explanation says that abuse is systemic, but accidentally so: it is not that the institution derives any benefit from the abuse; the abuse just happens, and when it does the institution has a policy that covers it up, out of naivety and panic. My explanation is more frightening: I am saying that, as a human institution, abuse has become embedded as the key to the loyalty of a large number of its clerical members and volunteers. Abuse and its protection plays the role of salaries and promotion in commercial organisations. Abuse is systemic, in the sense that it is what the institution is being used for.

You might say that an organisation that manufactures soup is geared towards making soup, but however passionate its staff may be about soup, it is really an organisation that uses the manufacture and sale of soup to make money. We could say, in parallel, that the Church has become, in part, an organisation that uses the Faith to seek out and exploit opportunities for abuse.

This not the whole of the Church, but it should horrify us that it is any part of it.

My article begins:

The Catholic Church’s clerical sex abuse crisis may be said to have entered public consciousness with the Boston Globe’s revelations, which began in January 2002, and it has yet to go away. The standard explanation of it is that bishops and other superiors covered up abuse in order to protect the reputation of the Church, but this is almost the opposite of the truth. The reality is that sexual abuse was covered up as part of a strategy of calculated risk-taking, not for the benefit of the institution, but for the benefit of the superior.

I spent many years in Roman Catholic institutions populated by abusers and, while never a victim myself, I got to know some of the perpetrators and some of those who protected them. My argument, however, is based on well-established patterns of behaviour which can be found beyond the confines of the Roman Church. These patterns extend back in time at least as far as the 1960s, and they continue to persist.

Read it all there.

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